Battles There Will Be, but Christianity Is Not about Winning
We have a natural tendency to approach the conflicts of our times with a desire to “win”. We want to win the battle over the HHS Mandate; we want to win the fight for traditional marriage; we want win court cases that might marginalize Christians; we want win rights for the unborn; we want to win debates and win votes. It seems that everything is a battle or a contest in which we hope that victory will be ours. But all this emphasis on victory can be misleading.
It is not that victories in these areas are unimportant. In the course of events we face difficult battles over specific issues, and if we are fighting for the right things, then we are right to desire to defeat the plans of those who oppose what is right, lest those plans come to fruition. At the same time, thinking in terms of victory can be spiritually dangerous. We ought not to have any ultimate desire to “defeat” others. We do not want them to “lose”. Quite the contrary, everything we advocate is essentially a gift to others. We want them to gain something. Each “battle”, if it has any meaning at all in the Christian scheme, is really not so much a battle as a service.
Before going further, let us consider that evil, in essence, is nothingness. It is a privation, an absence of due good. Therefore, to advocate some good is to attempt to give others something they are lacking. There should be no question of seeking to take anything truly good away. Indeed, every service we perform for others ought to be conceived as an important gift. Our whole mission is to fill the lives of others with absent goods. Ultimately, we wish to fill them with God Himself, the source of all good.
As a result, if we truly order our lives to this service, others should have no legitimate grounds to feel as if they have been assaulted. If concepts of defeat and victory enter into things, it should not be because we have gone on the “attack” but because those whom we seek to serve mistakenly feel threatened by our service. In consequence of this mistake, they will very often start a fight against us, seeking in fact to defeat us. But our task is not so much to win as to serve.
Christian Victory and Christian Service
The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve. These are Our Lord’s words, on that occasion when He also said: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave”. And He went further still, even defining “to serve” as “to give his life as a ransom for many” (cf. Mt 20:25-28). We are not splitting hairs here. There is something about battle and winning and victory which does not quite capture this important reality at the very heart of life in Christ. The crucifixion was not intended to be perceived by Christ’s enemies as a victory, or at least not a victory “against them”.
In fact, the New Testament does not use the words for “win” and “victory” very often. When it does, the context is almost always winning life with Christ for all eternity in the Kingdom of Heaven, either for oneself or for others. Thus St. Paul:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. [1 Cor 9:19-22]
Or again, in his second letter, St. John says, “Look to yourselves, that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward” (2 Jn 1:8). Earlier he had already explained that “whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith” (1 Jn 5:4). Indeed, victory in the Gospel is not the winning of particular battles in this life, still less the defeat of particular enemies, but the ultimate triumph of Christ at the end of all things: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:32).
In a similar context, St. Paul actually taunts death, asking “Where is thy victory?”, and gives thanks to God “who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (cf.1 Cor 15:54-57). Finally, citing Isaiah, St. Matthew says of Christ:
“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he shall proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will any one hear his voice in the streets; he will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick, till he brings justice to victory; and in his name will the Gentiles hope.” [Mt 12:18-21; Is 42:1-4]
Now this in fact is what it means for the Christian to “win”. It means the fulfillment of our enemies’ wildest dreams.
Bruised Reed, Smoldering Wick
It is always difficult to avoid thinking of the opposition as arrogant imbeciles who are only good for being gathered up and burned. How easily can we yearn for such a victory! But we are rather called to think of them as bruised reeds and smoldering wicks, people who generally see some part of the good, but who adhere to even less than they see, and that only weakly. They lack either the opportunity or the understanding or the strength of will to commit themselves to the whole. But it is Christ, not you and I, who must judge their hearts.
Meanwhile, they cry out for help; they cry out for service. It is a service to communicate to them the gift of committed love in marriage. It is a service to portray the beauty, wonder and benefits, both in this life and the next, of openness to children and family. It is a service to use political authority to protect and promote the common good. It is a service to explain to those in darkness the meaning of their lives, that they may find joy in permanent goods rather than lose these in passing pleasures. It is a service to provide for their spiritual and material needs. It is a service to make authentic values the bedrock of effective education. It is even a service to joyfully endure the enormous sufferings which come to all of us through the sins and mistakes of those who hate us (not to mention, of course, our own sins). And it is a signal service to preach the Gospel.
All of these are profound services of that love in which Our Lord bids us to be perfected (see 1 Jn 4). Such things have very little to do with “winning” or “victory” as we commonly conceive of them. Understanding this can dramatically change not only our motivation but the way in which we think about, approach, engage and influence others. The great St. Augustine considered exactly this question in one of the homilies he preached on the first letter of John, the letter in which we learn that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). I cannot improve upon his conclusion, which follows from this little essay exactly as the Resurrection follows from the crucifixion of our own petty concerns about winning:
What is perfection in love? Loving our enemies and loving them so that they may be converted into brothers. Our love should not be a temporal love. Wishing someone temporal well-being is good; but, even if he does not have that, his soul should be secured. Do you wish life to any that is your friend? You do well. Do you rejoice at the death of your enemy? You do ill. But it may be that the life you wish to your friend is not for his good, while the death of your enemy, at which you rejoice, has been for his good. For it is uncertain whether this life is useful or useless to someone; whereas life in God is always useful. Therefore, love your enemies in such a way that they become your brothers; love them in such a way that you attract them to fellowship with yourself in the Church. [Epist. Ioann. ad Parthos, 1, 9]
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